Today almost anyone you talk to will have already fixed in his or her mind what does and what does not constitute good music. And a discussion on the subject with any more than one person quickly reveals that no two people seem to agree on the answer. Oscar Wilde observed the emotional nature of the subject in the Importance of Being Earnest when in the first act it is said that “music is a great difficulty. You see, if one plays good music, people don’t listen, and if one plays bad music, people don’t talk.”
As Latter-day Saints we find ourselves both listening and talking about the subject. Our General Authorities have been doing so for some time, but as with some Saints in most dispensations, we sometimes tend not to listen or to hear only what we choose to hear—what seems comfortable to us because of our own preconceived ideas. Let us, therefore, resolve both to recognize and listen to good music and to recognize and talk about what may make other music unsuitable.
Music is an art, and as such there are many factors that can and do influence its final form. Lyrics, or the words of a song, are just one of the factors we can recognize. This factor is perhaps the easiest to recognize of the many that affect a song or piece of music, and it can be quickly and easily measured against Paul’s admonition that we hold fast to things that are lovely and of good report and virtuous. But what of the other factors that enter in? If the lyrics are all right, can the music be made unsatisfactory by other factors?
Elder Boyd K. Packer made it clear that it can in his address to the Church on the subject in general conference. (“Inspiring Music—Worthy Thoughts,” Ensign, Jan. 1974, p. 25.) He observed that we can take a well-lighted hall, with modestly dressed individuals in attendance, proper supervision and organization, and yes, even music that preaches no evil message in its lyrics, and add to this gathering music of disproportionate loudness or intensity, and we may find that the Spirit of the Lord withdraws from the activity, and those involved find themselves bereft of this great gift we have been commanded to have with us at all times. Why?
The scriptures caution us to avoid excess in all things. Temperance is one of the virtues extolled by the Savior, so excess is definitely not desirable in the music we choose to listen to. So when does loudness exceed its honorable purpose and become a liability to our spiritual senses? Can such a question be answered with blanket statements as to how many decibels of sound are too many? Obviously not. Since it is an aesthetic component and is therefore determined by its ultimate purpose within the piece of music, the answer to the question is another question, namely: “Just why is it loud?” A simple test, but true.
There is an obvious difference between volume variations that are used to create alternate moods and express alternate emotions—as with some great classical works—and the continually blaring, electronically distorted wailing of acid rock performed by musicians high on mind bending drugs. The level of volume, decibel-wise, may in fact be no louder, comparing one to the other. But the duration and the purpose of the volume are vastly different. Again we must ask ourselves in each case just what the purpose of the volume is. That is the determining point.
Some music, of all forms, is acceptable, and some music, of all forms, is not. But no one will deny that there are more examples of improper intensity to be found in rock music than in any other kind. The key is in recognizing this and being more careful in our applications of tests of its acceptability to us. If we are careful, there is much in the rock music area, and much more in other areas, that we can accept and enjoy.
But let us deal for a moment specifically with the question of just what it is about the loudness factor, when used improperly, that may drive the Spirit of the Lord from us.
When loudness becomes a cover—an all-encompassing influence that blocks out all touch with reality and normal reason—a normally temperate person becomes intemperate in his or her dance, speech, and general behavior. There is a feeling that no one will know or care what you may say or do. Anyone who has experienced a prolonged exposure to excessively loud, ear-splitting rock music knows that there is a sudden feeling that anything goes. A moral apathy pervades the performers and the audience as the Spirit of the Lord withdraws. The loudness so overloads us with physical sensation that it blocks out all other senses, overcomes us, and changes our thinking and our actions while we are exposed to it.
We are not speaking here of the kind of loudness that most of us at times enjoy while listening to a particular piece of music we like and that we want to enjoy to the fullest for a moment. We are speaking of the kind of loudness that has no purpose but to become our only concern, at the exclusion of thought and reason and temperance.
Prolonged loudness and the intensity in any piece of music can indeed make a difference to our spiritual well-being. We cannot, with impunity, ignore the warnings we have received on the subject without suffering the spiritual consequences of our choice. The world may choose to hide in darkness and in volume, but we have been taught otherwise. In a letter to the Church, printed in the Deseret News on January 9, 1913, President Joseph F. Smith and the First Presidency counseled, “Now, let the Saints of God rejoice and be merry. Not in excess, nor in boisterous or disorderly speech or action, but with that temperance and moderation that bring no regrettable results.”
When we hear good music, in whatever form of expression, let us listen and learn to broaden our tastes to enjoy it. When we hear bad music, let us have the spiritual courage to identify it as such and to reject it. When we discuss the subject, let us be open-minded and fair in our judgments.
With respect to the loudness factor, as Saints we must always see that its use is virtuous, lovely, and of good report. If we do so, the Spirit of the Lord, that great companion and one of our most valuable gifts from God, will not depart from us.